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The Public Religion Research Institute has just released a survey about American attitudes toward Christmas.

The highlights:

  • A plurality of those surveyed favored merchants’ use of the generic “Happy Holidays” greeting rather than the more explicit “Merry Christmas.” The 49 to 43 plurality represents a shift of roughly five percentage points from 2010, when, by a 49 to 44 plurality, those surveyed favored “Merry Christmas.”

  • 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants favored “Merry Christmas”; a narrow plurality of mainline Protestants also favored this greeting, while a bare majority of Roman Catholics preferred the generic greeting; slightly more pronounced majorities of minority Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated favored the generic greeting. (I note with some surprise that any of the religiously unaffiliated preferred the traditional greeting.)

  • 66 percent of young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) favored the generic greeting.

  • 42 percent of those celebrating Christmas will treat it as a strongly religious holiday; 31 percent will celebrate it as a somewhat religious holiday; 26 percent will treat it as a non-religious holiday. Unsurprisingly, white evangelicals (71 percent) lead the way in the first category, followed by minority Protestants (54 percent), Catholics (49 percent), white mainline Protestants (38 percent), and the religiously unaffiliated (6 percent!).

  • 79 percent of those surveyed will watch a Christmas movie over the holidays, while only 59 percent say they will attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

  • 49 percent of those surveyed believe that the Christmas story is historically accurate, while 40 percent regard it as “a theological story to affirm faith in Jesus Christ.” 80 percent of white evangelicals take the former view, as do 62 percent of minority Protestants, 56 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 51 percent of Catholics. Young people are significantly less likely than older people to take the former view. Indeed, agreement with the former view has dropped 18 percent since 2004.

The survey suggests that the percentage of Americans who attribute religious significance to Christmas is diminishing. It’s not so much a matter of how merchants greet us, as it’s pretty clear that some people can attribute religious significance to the holiday without demanding that others in a commercial setting agree with them.

Personally, I’m not offended when clerks wish me a happy holiday; I always say “Merry Christmas”—first, or in return—unless it’s obvious that the clerk isn’t a Christian. More important, I think, is the broader culture, which has commercialized and secularized Christmas. Most important, however, are the churches, which either aren’t doing a very good job of conveying the meaning of Christmas to the people in the pews or doing an altogether too good job of draining it of its genuinely religious significance.

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